The role of Fembots in mainstream media has been controversial topic since the introduction of the Bionic Woman in the 1970s. Some feminists have decried the portrayal of the “femme fatale” of the technological age as a classic demonstration of patriarchal control: a woman created by men to be perfectly proportioned, controllable, subordinate, and selfless. The Bitch magazine article discusses the role of Fembots and the effect it has on our society at length; they claim that the role of Fembot, especially in advertising, both encourages the subjugation of women by a controlling patriarchy and teaches men what kind of women they should be attracted to. Some feminists, however, make the argument that by removing the biological aspect in the representation of women they are freed from the natural burden of bearing children, and thereby are allowed to use their bodies in an empowering way more similar to that of typical male representations in media.
When the Fembot was first introduced, the feminism of the 1970s was in full-swing. The movement then had concerns about more obvious symptoms of sexism in American society, such as this “Living Barbie” commercial from the era:
While the newer and more naturalistic production of the doll was being showcased here, there is another (and much more alarming) message as well. The visual mash-up of Barbie and real girl is clearly meant to highlight the new movements of the doll, but it also says to young girls that Barbie is just like them, or–more importantly–that they should be just like Barbie. And while the ad touts her new, more naturalistic physical features, it visually showcases a body image that is completely unrealistic for young girls. While feminists then and now should have valid concerns about this type of advertising, it’s questionable that the producers of the ad purposefully meant to propagate a certain body type here. Instead, the ad should be viewed as the symptom of an unhealthy national ideology that existed (and still exists) concerning women and the means of their inherent value.
The same questions can be asked of mass media today; though the message is usually more subtle because of the social progress and awareness that the feminist movement raised at that time, the question remains: what is our overarching ideology concerning women? What do American men, as a whole, expect out of American women? And what do American women expect of themselves? While overt sexism is no longer acceptable in the media, there are remnants of our patriarchal ideology within many aspects of pop culture today. The Fembot in particular has regained recent popularity as technology has taken the center stage of our generation. Examples of mixing fantastical technological advances with real humanity are everywhere; Daft Punk, the Transformers movies, auto-tuning in various forms of popular music, and the saturation of technologically inspired music in the Top 40 charts are just a few examples. Lady Gaga has visually incorporated robotics into her public persona several times, both in her music videos and in her fashion statements.
The outfit gives off an overtly sexual tone, but that’s to be expected from any pop star showing up at any event. What’s more troubling is the fact that her eyes (the facial features classically associated with identity) are covered by some sort of black mask; in order to see, she has a camera attached to her shoulder. This theme of a masked identity, or no identity at all, is repeated in the music video to “Bad Romance” several times.
Not only do the myriad of backup dancers in the beginning of the sequence (and throughout it) have no faces, but their robotic movements as they emerge from some sort of plastic packaging container suggests that they are less than human. Lady Gaga herself is physically coerced to drink an anonymous clear liquid, and she continues her performance. Finally, the viewer realizes that their highly sexualized, highly depersonalized dancing is actually a performance for what appears to be a group of partially human men, who are sitting around tables, drinking the same clear liquid and digitally bidding at auction (presumably for ownership of Lady Gaga). When the highest bidder wins, Lady Gaga suddenly sprouts machine guns out of her breasts, which inexplicably cause an explosion, frying the man to a charred skeleton and damaging Gaga’s internal wiring. While the creators of this video may or may not have been viewing this through a feminist lens, to me the message is clear: this is the structure of how things are. Women are coerced to parade around for men to ogle and bid on, and the only form of resistance they can offer must come sexually and must end by causing harm to not only the opressor, but the opressed as well. All the while, the well-known lyrics to the song are playing: “I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your everything, as long as it’s free”. It practically screams to women that true love is marked by subjection and utter acceptance of even the worst of the “highest bidder”.
I don’t think that Lady Gaga intended to send such an anti-feminist message with this video, but I do believe she and her team are smart business people, and producing something that jives with the dominant ideology will sell better than something that questions it. Once again, the problems of this video should be viewed as the symptoms of an overarching ideology that still exists about the value of women.
The saturation of Fembot in popular culture, propigated across cultures by Lady Gaga and those of her ilk, as well as the contemporary importance of technological development has transmitted globally in a perfect example of Sturken and Cartwright’s chapter 9 concepts. In Japan, one of the current leaders of technological development, there are several “humanoids”, or humanistic androids, that are being developed. Curiously enough, rather than create a gender neutral robotic form, all of these robots so far are made to mimic an idealistic female form. If music videos and commercials aren’t enough to make us question the contemporary tendency to turn to technology as an answer to imperfection, or to question the ideology behind male creation of Fembots, take a look at this article from MailOnline:
This inventor has actually created his own model of a perfect woman and lives with her as if she were real. He bought her Christmas presents last year, and says she is “always helpful and never complains. She is the perfect woman to have around at Christmas”.
Oh, and in case you were wondering how Barbie’s doing these days, apparently she’s joined forces with the Gaga. All I want to know is if this doll comes with a rapid-fire machine gun bra.